What's inside the cube?
We all want to know. After Peter Molyneux delivered his developer session to a packed audience at Eurogamer Expo last week, we here at Eurogamer had a good chin wag wondering what this life-changing thing is. It's not money. It's not Half-Life 3. Well, what is it then? But, as I discovered during my interview with the man himself a little later on, Curiosity holds yet another secret.
More on that later. First, we delve into the nitty gritty of Curiosity itself. What's to stop people abusing the cube, tapping out offensive symbols and words? Will Molyneux step in if it all gets too much? And what happens if Curiosity is insanely popular? According to Molyneux, if it's featured on the App Store, "we're f***ed!"
With the app in submission as you read this, the cube's secrets will soon be revealed. For now, though, sit back, relax, and enjoy this appetiser with its creator.
The plan was for Curiosity to launch last month. What was the hold up on getting it ready for submission at Apple?
Peter Molyneux: I'm terrible about projecting dates. We've got a producer starting on Monday (today), so we've done all of this without any production science. When I did the Rezzed talk, which was in July, there were eight people at 22 Cans. There are now 20. And on Monday there will be 21.
Walking out of Microsoft on 3rd March, sitting down in an office with three people, messing around in Unity for a week or so, realising I was too rusty to be of any use as a programmer, working on the concept, bringing the team together, and then releasing to the App Store in 20 weeks - I still think that's pretty good going.
For a start, it sounds like such an easy concept. Big black cube. Big thing in the middle. But the complexity of supporting having a scalable solution so we can have as few as a hundred people interacting with the cube or as many as a million people interacting with the cube, that's a lot of hassle.
This chap called Paul Knight started and said, you do realise your current solution you've implemented I could hack in half an hour, and the cube would just go, zoom! And dissolve down. So we did a lot of work on the security of the cube making sure hackers can't hack it. That put some time on the project.
We had a designer who used to work at Mind Candy. He's very much a different designer to me. He's a lot more about feel. He kept saying it doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel like the right experience. That took some time to get right.
And then just getting used to developing on this [points to iPhone] and realising that, even on Apple, which is a very closed system, there are lots of different versions. We had this massive problem on the low end devices versus the high end devices. We learnt a hell of a lot.
And then, of course, layering in the Android development as well.
When will it release for Android?
Peter Molyneux: It should be coming out for Android, touch wood, on the same day as it comes out for iOS.
I know it's only been a few days since you submitted the game to Apple. Will it simply magically appear on the Store one day?
Peter Molyneux: I've got a phone call with Apple, which I'm very scared about. I've asked for a phone call. The way it works is you submit your app to Apple. I don't know what they do, but it goes into this cert process, and if everything is okay, that can take between five and 15 working days. When you submit it you submit it with a launch date. You say, I'd like to launch it on such and such a date. If they authorise it before that date you can bring that date forward.
In that period of time we're finalising the Android version and possibly even thinking about a browser version as well. We're just thinking about it. We haven't done any work on it. And then off you go.
But I have no idea when it's going to come out. We could turn it on on Monday morning and it could be through their cert process. That's very doubtful. Or they could say, this is no good. You just don't know.
What's your call?
Peter Molyneux: I bet you it's going to take at least 10 days to two weeks to go through cert. It depends what happens. They have over 3000 apps submitted a week. So they can't play all those. You'd need an army.
During your session you suspected Apple was playing.
Peter Molyneux: Oh they definitely did on the cube yes. Someone has. I know everybody who's been on there. They've definitely gone in there and removed a bit of it. So someone's been on it. Whether that's someone who just tested the app I don't know. That's the thing. It's so persistent. I can see whether people have been on there or not. The thing I suspected they did is down here [shows the cube on an iPad]. This was probably them [zooms to a part of the cube that has been chipped away]. Little do they know what they're revealing underneath that. My god who's this? [Moves to another part of the cube]. "I rock at table footie." Who did that? I don't know who did that. It's terrifying.
What happens if someone taps on the cube to spell out offensive words or symbols?
Peter Molyneux: It's the same as if it happens on Twitter isn't it? Or YouTube or any of those things. What happened with beta tested was almost this stream of consciousness. Someone will do what's been done here: "I rock at table footie" and someone will draw underneath a table football table. That becomes almost a subject matter, like on Twitter, and it'll inspire people.
One of the beta testers was an artist. She drew this beautiful little flower. Someone extended out this whole flower and it was beautiful. And then the number of cubes started going down - and this is what people haven't seen of the gameplay - the number of cubes on here is fine. You've got loads. You can tap to your hearts content. But after a while these number of spaces there are get more than the number of cubes on the surface. So you haven't got the delight of simply tapping like this [rasps fingers on the iPad]. You've got to hunt the cubes down. And that's where people's pictures get destroyed by people's need to tap and clear off.
So say someone created a load of Swastikas or racist words. You think they would get obliterated very quickly?
I don't think anything offensive will last. Or, it will either not last or get much more offensive. Who knows?
Peter Molyneux: It would be obliterated or changed into something else. Sure enough I could do a Swastika [taps out a Swastika] and someone could change that into anything. They could just continue these lines. So I don't think anything offensive will last. Or, it will either not last or get much more offensive. Who knows?
Would you step in?
Peter Molyneux: No. Unless it's... this is like a white wall in London. If I were to build a building with a beautiful white wall in there it's going to get graffiti on it. How many times have you really seen truly offensive graffiti?
Peter Molyneux: That's the point. What no-one has seen yet, not even me, is what it feels like to all tap together. I'll be tapping here and then I'll see someone else come in. This is why we haven't put any form of chat in there at all. We could easily do it. You then start using the only device you've got, which is the tapping, to communicate. I'll start writing a message to you. And that becomes a little game into itself. People make their own games up.
We have added in there this functionality, which is you can go and see what your friends are doing. Paul McLaughlin, I can go and see what he's been doing [zooms to another part of the cube], which is not much. But I could put, "Hi Paul," and he could tap a message back. We're still playing the game. We're still chipping away at the middle of the cube.
You're playing this and then you see someone come along with this massive chisel like this huge beast and start stamping. It's just very interesting Wes. I don't know what we've created. It's definitely not a game.
You don't think so?
Peter Molyneux: Well, it is a game. It's a game where there's only one single objective in there, but a game where we really tried to keep it very simple to start off with and not layer too many game mechanics on top of it.
But someone will win.
Peter Molyneux: Someone has got to win. It could be you.
I should be so lucky.
Peter Molyneux: You would be.
I won't ask you what's inside the cube. I've asked you before and during your session you said what's not inside the cube. What I'm interested in is what you hope to learn from Curiosity that will feed into the big game idea you have.
Peter Molyneux: I don't think there's ever been an experience on these devices that linked millions of people together. We've got Twitter that links millions of people together. We've got Facebook. There's never been a game that does that. If you're going to do that, how does that all work?
I don't know how many people are going to download this, but what happens if there were 50,000 downloaded, but they only tapped 10 times? How can I adjust this and make it so those people who only tapped 10 times then tap 1000 times? That's one of the huge learnings. If I have the power to change anything on this cube at any time, what happens when I do change stuff?
At the moment all the analytics that are being done in the industry, the vast majority are about monetisation. Zynga has this amazing way of analysing the experience and trying to get more money out of people, which is great. I can understand that. But their games are insanely complex. They've got loads of different number systems and currencies users have to worry about. What I wonder is, with just one pure mechanics, can I tweak this mechanic and learn about balancing it more dynamically? I have to do that. I have to learn how to produce an experience for millions of people because that's what our final game will have. I have to learn about the delicacies of monetisation, of balancing things and of changing the rules. What if I change the rules? What if on layer six I change the rules? What happens to this overall experience? All of those are me learning as a game designer things I need to use in this final game.
This final game, if it is going to be a truly great game, it's going to be played by millions. The way we interact as designers with millions of people now is completely different to the way we interacted when we sat in our ivory towers and programmed away and then just threw it out to the world. We're learning a lot about that.
We're learning a lot about server technology. You've got to have this scalable solution. If we release Curiosity now, we have all these monitors on the wall that have all the usage graphs in real time, and if our usage graph goes up and we hit a threshold we have to switch on another Amazon server, that has to be an immediately scalable solution. You can't suddenly turn round to everyone and say you're offline. We should be able to go from one server to a thousand servers. We have to have a solution to do that.
How will we guard against hacking? That could be an enormous problem. We could sit there and look at the cube and see it deteriorate into nothing. So there are a tonne of things to learn there, technically, psychologically and in game design terms.
How many do you reckon will download it?
This would be impossible within Microsoft. For a start, me saying to Microsoft, I'm going to put a cube with something secret in the middle, they'd have to know the secret. It would be out of the question.
It's free. Maybe half a million.
Peter Molyneux: I'd be amazed if we got that much.
There seems to be a lot of interest in it. Maybe that is ambitious. I reckon there could be a snowball effect where downloads grow over time.
Peter Molyneux: I just have no idea. And that in itself is terrible.
But this is what you left Microsoft for, right?
Peter Molyneux: Yes it is. This would be impossible within Microsoft. For a start, me saying to Microsoft, I'm going to put a cube with something secret in the middle, they'd have to know the secret. It would be out of the question.
There are a few mechanics in there which help spread it. If you go down the pub and say, oh look, download this, all you have to do is say that, and if that person who downloads it is your Facebook friend you get a thousand points free. If all of your friends are all playing the cube you'd end with a thousand times that number of people. You don't have to send out any invites. It's all automatic.
As it gets smaller people will realise the end is near. It will be amazing because we can literally sit here and if there were millions of people this cube would be deforming as we speak. Just having that on the wall would be brilliant.
When did you first have the idea for this?
Peter Molyneux: I first had the idea for what's in the middle years ago. I always thought, is the power of curiosity enough? The simple mechanic to try that out wasn't until I messed around in Unity. I was thinking about maybe it could be a mystery in the game. I thought, why not make it this simple? Something's inside that cube. And then it was all the question of how do you get into the centre of the cube. It has been an amazing experience. It's very mad, Wes, really.
You know my biggest fear? My biggest fear is it is half a million people. If it gets featured on the App Store we're f***ed.
Don't you want that?
Peter Molyneux: Want it? But the thing that's in the middle - if it literally is a million people? We had this beta test group, and they tapped so compulsively they tapped 300,000 within a few hours. At that rate, if the world engages with the cube at that rate it could all be over in 10 days. 60 billion - the cube literally would go shooop. And the thing that's in the middle, it's so huge that if it is just over in 10 days it would be a disaster.
Peter Molyneux: Because part of it is the anticipation. If everything is over in 10 days you haven't had enough time to anticipate. If it could last a month or two months, then that anticipation will build up and up and up. And there are all these clues on these layers to what is underneath the cube. And all these plans we've got, we're going to change the rules.
We're giving the 60th layer to the indie community. Here's a little API, you can do what you like on this layer, anybody who does something we put onto this layer they'll be featured on the cube. I'd love to do that. It would be an amazing way of engaging in the community. But if it's a million people anything we do will just be eroded. A million people all doing one thing!
127,000 people built the pyramids. Human beings can do unbelievable things unbelievably quickly if they do it together. So that's a huge fear.
The other fear is obscurity. That it's me and my mum tapping away. Come on mum!
There's a surprise. There is something we haven't told everybody about when you play the cube. When you play the cube you're also doing something else. You don't realise you're doing it.
I don't think you have to worry about that.
Peter Molyneux: We're working on the actual game now. We've got a name, but we haven't publicly said it.
When will you announce it?
Peter Molyneux: We'll probably announce it on the cube.
As one of the layers?
Peter Molyneux: Yeah. I can change the text on the cube. It can be a news feed. It can be a Twitter feed. We've got all that stuff and the layers.
And the surprise.
What's inside the cube?
Peter Molyneux: No. There's a surprise. There is something we haven't told everybody about when you play the cube. When you play the cube you're also doing something else. You don't realise you're doing it.
You see, this technology we've got is amazing. It's all about persistence. Curiosity tests about connecting people together. But it also is about persistence. That's a clue. You're not just doing things in the cube. You don't realise it but you're doing something in something else as well at the same time.